It’s been almost three decades since Paul “shrimp on the barbie” Hogan first doffed his iconic Akubra hat and graced the big screen, wrestling wild animals, sipping pots of beer and comparing knife sizes in the role that defined his career.
But given the oafishness of his character, “graced" hardly seems the right word.
Back in 1986, when Michael J. "Crocodile" Dundee became a local and international box office sensation (the film that bears his name is to this day the most commercially successful Australian feature in history), Hogan and director Peter Faiman extracted laughs from the story of a Tarzan-like rube with a small brain, a big heart and a bigger knife.
If Dundee’s shtick felt atavistic back then, it feels fossil-like these days. And if Crocodile Dundee lingers fondly in the memory, it plays awkwardly now – a patchy, slow-footed series of escapades designed to reinforce, again and again, the notion of its protagonist as an endearing idiot.
The results are mixed at best. Endearing is a stretch, as is the film’s reputation as a laugh-out-loud comedy. Sue (Linda Kozlowski) is a hotshot New York journalist visiting Australia who thinks she has a great story in the tale of a man whose leg was bitten off by a crocodile. She meets him in a pub and discovers his leg was bitten, rather than bitten off, and follows him into the bush to absorb the lifestyle of this strange outback specimen.
For a long time Crocodile Dundee isn't so much a collection of jokes as a stiff-jointed opposites-attract romantic drama goofed up with stereotypes. In the outback, camped by themselves, Sue pressures Mick for his opinion on anything remotely intellectual. What are his views on the nuclear debate or the arms race? Or on Indigenous land rights?
“Aborigines don’t own the land, they belong to it. It’s like their mother,” he responds, going on to recite a line comparing Indigenous people “arguing over rocks” to two fleas arguing over who owns a dog. Thanks for the insight, Hoges. Best to stay with comedy.
It takes over 40 minutes and a laborious first act for Crocodile Dundee to find comedic rhythm. This occurs when Mick is shipped to New York and subsequently changes from the rugged host to the bemused out-of-towner. When he lands in the big smoke, perplexed by the airport escalator, it’s not hard to understand the appeal the film has, particularly for American audiences: it’s a story built on the simple pleasures of watching a jovial nincompoop from an exotic land bumble through life in a metropolis.
The jokes are run-of-the-mill fish-out-of-water routines. Mick asks an African-American chauffeur what tribe he's from (“I ain’t from no tribe”), confuses hotel tips for paying in advance and doesn’t understand American bathrooms or the concept of prostitutes. When told he’s been chatting up a trans woman he grabs at her groin and yells “that was a guy dressed up like a sheila!”
It’s punchlines like that that show the film’s age. But despite (or perhaps because of) their stupidity the jokes inadvertently tap into something deeper: a kind of Australian who still exists and a country that accommodates them. By turn, the film comments – however unintentionally – on rural Australia as a place populated by flaky people who have little understanding of the world around them. It condescends to these people, just as the film condescends to its audience.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010